As one of my high school history teachers used to say, we all look at the world through our own beer goggles. That is, all of us use our own experiences and reality to process the world around us. It is no different in how we in the modern west have a typical understanding of a religion as a monotheistic practice and more specifically, Judeo-Christian. However, the religion that we find common and unthreatening was a huge concern during the time of the Ancient Romans before significant reform swept the country. When investigating ancient texts and how Christians were perceived, it is very valid for the Romans to be worried about all the rumors they were hearing about this new religion, though I do not agree that they had the right to attempt to stamp it out. It is quite possible that Roman’s believed that this new religion could change everything they had known.
In ancient times, Rome was truly a powerhouse and as different Emperors and governors came to power, all sought to solidify their strength and lashed out against any possible signs of weakness in their armor. The new wave of Christianity could certainly be seen as just that, a weakness. Many of these Roman rulers saw themselves as deities and also ordered the worship of many other more traditional Roman gods such as Jupiter or Venus. This was widely accepted throughout the Empire. To watch the rise of a new religion that spoke of only a single God, and that men themselves are not to be worshipped, surely caused concern among the rulers and common people. In fact, The Governor of Pontus, Pliny the younger, writes a letter to Emperor Trajan when he first encounters Christianity as he wonders how to proceed. Pliny writes,
“I have never participated in trials of Christians. I therefore do not know what offenses it is the practice to punish or investigate, and to what extent. And I have been not a little hesitant as to whether there should be any distinction on account of age or no difference between the very young and the more mature; whether pardon is to be granted for repentance, or, if a man has once been a Christian, it does him no good to have ceased to be one; whether the name itself, even without offenses, or only the offenses associated with the name are to be punished(Pliny).”
He is so confounded by this new religion that he immediately seeks advice from the Emperor. Certainly the suspicion and twisting of Christian values played into his fear and hesitation.
Passed down from person to person to person in the Roman Empire, the traditions of these Christians were often muddled and seemed more harmful than they were. For example, communion. In this Christion practice, bread is eaten and wine drank to symbolize Christ’s body being broken and sacrificed. However, when passed along, it often came across as Christians being cannibals and eating the flesh and blood of another human. Similarly, because they also called each other brother and sister, even within their own families, it appeared as if they were not only cannibals but also practiced incest. Such rumors spread through a proverbial game of telephone surely sparked Roman anger.
It would be truly threatening if I were to be the ruler in Rome and heard of a new religion that I had never encountered, which was supposedly filled with cannibals and incest among other rumors. Because of these tales and newness of the religion, it is entirely valid for the Ancient Romans to have feared Christianity.
Word Count: 599
Pliny, Letters 10.96-97